On being Very, Very Old: An Insider's Perspective

Elaine M. Brody, MSW, DSc (Hon)


Gerontologist. 2010;50(1):2-10. 

In This Article

Future Perspectives: Professional and Personal

My future perspective is informed by my past and present perspectives and is, of course, my personal viewpoint. I do not presume to make any predictions.

For much of my life, the curve was going in the right direction for older people. The result is that today's older Americans are markedly different from previous generations. They are more prosperous, better educated, healthier, and live longer. The Census Bureau projects that those differences will accelerate as the first boomers hit retirement. And disability will be postponed to one's later years. All of that, of course, is good even though we had not gone the whole way.

But in many ways, that curve changed its direction and has been moving in a downward trajectory. I will not spell out the current economic crisis, as you know it all too well.

Though that is disheartening, because I am very very old, I can look back to a past that was much worse. Before 1929 and the "crash," we had no Social Security, no Medicare, no Older Americans Act, no facilities or services for the aged, and so on. When the curve began to move upwards, all those came into being. Since 1945, we—the members of the GSA—have accumulated much knowledge and practice expertise that has been applied to help older people. Interest in aging has soared.

It is my hope (not a prediction) that our recent and continuing economic downturn will, like Steve Brody's economic catastrophes, cause reversal of the downward curve in social policy and once again enable improved policy measures to help older people and their families. As Steve wrote, "Developing favorable public policy depends on our values. It is not a question of our ability but on our willingness to do so (Brody, 1987)." IT DEPENDS. When I met Rob Hudson (Editor of GSA's Public Policy and Aging Report) here the other day, he warmed my heart by spontaneously remembering and mentioning Steve and that lecture.

My personal, if unsatisfactory, answer to the question "Is it good to be very, very old?" is IT DEPENDS. And it depends on our expectations.

Earlier in this talk, I described my friend Betty's 98th birthday party. She said in her one-line welcoming speech, "I'm glad you are all here, and I'm glad I'm here, too." Remember: she is "exceptional, not typical." She has enough money, has a very pleasant living style, is essentially in good health, has good functional capacity, has a boyfriend, and has plenty of beautiful clothes. (That last variable does not appear on any morale scale.) Her lifestyle meets her expectations. IT DEPENDS.

True, not all the elements of a "good" old age are within our control. But some are. Though we cannot do it all, we have shown in the past that we can remedy some of the conditions that impede "happiness." We, as a nation, can see to it that there is an adequate income floor. We can see to it that good health care is affordable and available. We can see to it, although we have not always done so, that nursing homes are places for care, not neglect. (More than 20% of people my age or older are in nursing homes.) We can see to it that a range of support services and living arrangements exist and are accessible when needed. We can see to it that funds are available for further research to identify what is needed for the well being of older people. Instead of piously invoking the need for adult children's "filial maturity," we can as a society meet our collective filial responsibility (Brody, 1985b). As someone said before me, "Yes we can!"